Stopping the Soul-hunters

The story of Holon teens turning Haredi en masse proves the Ultra-Orthodox have learned nothing from the Shinui episode.

It is hard to believe that only six months ago, the secular-religious split was dormant. In recent months, the ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) parties have torpedoed secular party promises to enact a form of civil marriage. Industry Minister Eli Yishai of Shas has resurrected the Druze patrol that hands out fines at shopping malls on Shabbat. And before Shavuot, news emerged about the phenomenon of students becoming religious in high school.

Last Thursday, Tamar Rotem ran an article about a wave of newly religious students at prestigious high schools in Holon. But Holon is not alone. That same day, the Haredi newspaper Mishpaha ("Family") ran an article about newly religious students at Ramat Gan's Blich High School, where a regular minyan (prayer group) now operates. The newspaper related that Rabbi Yehiel Moyal, who specializes in transforming the secular into religious, has a club in Ramat Gan where he gives lessons on Saturday night to students from several secular schools. If at the beginning of the decade, the rabbis focused on children in kindergartens and elementary schools, the reports now show that they have gone back to dealing with teens.

The story about Holon raises the hypothesis that the Haredim have learned nothing from the Shinui phenomenon. There are few phenomena that cause as much hatred and dissension as the conversion of secular youth into religious ones. Working on adults is legitimate, as part of the struggle for opinions and souls. Working on little children involves parental agreement to sign them up for Haredi schools. If the parents agree, one can only complain to them, and to the public school system, for not offering a better alternative. But preaching to teenagers is a blow below the belt. It is an attempt to get them when they are confused and unformed, and to incite them against their families.

The storms that broke out in the wake of previous efforts to turn teens to religion halted those efforts. From a public relations standpoint, there is nothing more damaging to the cause of returning people to religion than broken families, the feeling that it is done through violence, and exposure of the techniques that are employed in all their superficiality. In recent years, the rabbis tried to work quietly, and especially tried to prevent the newly ultra-Orthodox from quarreling with their families. That, in any case, is apparently how Moyal of Ramat Gan works. But there is no doubt that there has been a terrible tactical error in Holon.

In her article, Rotem describes actions that border on the apparently criminal: People who hold minors for weeks against the will of their parents, yeshivas that take in minors as students without their parents' knowledge. As far as the parents are concerned, it is no easy task to struggle against this. They are afraid of losing their children entirely.

But parents who reach the conclusion that they have nothing to lose and are not ready to give in have options for action: They can go after the rabbis with legal means, by filing complaints against them with the police and the Education Ministry, which finances the yeshivas. They can turn to the attorney general if the police do not respond and if the ministry continues to finance the yeshivas. They can file suit for damages. If they lack the financial means, they can unite, like the parents in Holon, or turn to appropriate volunteer groups. Experience shows that under threat of a lawsuit, the rabbis are ready to reach compromises regarding the connection between parents and child.

To fight the phenomenon, the entire system - parents, schools, the Education Ministry, the media, the political system - must demonstrate deep and clear reservations about such soul-hunting. Youth must feel that there is something illegitimate about it - and no less important, that it is not at all cool. And some advice: It is very difficult for adults to talk to and persuade teens who have become caught up in extremism. Other teens or young men and women are needed for the job: articulate, charismatic volunteers convinced of the righteousness of secularism.